Monday, April 13, 2009

Cookbooks: Guides To Good Cooking

Friends occasionally ask me if I have any cooking tips. I always say ‘use salt.’ And then I tell them if they don’t have two cookbooks, Julia Child’s ‘Mastering The Art of French Cooking’ and the ‘Joy of Cooking,’ to buy both.

‘Mastering The Art’ because it’s truly that. The methods used in French cooking are the basis for all good cooking. Anyone wCookbooks 006ho has a desire to cook well should become familiar with French cooking. Julia and her two French girlfriends will walk you through it. ‘Joy’ because it has everything in it. If there’s something you want to make and you need to know how, look in ‘Joy of Cooking.’ You might not necessarily use the recipe but it will tell you how the dish is made. You can go from there. Or you can use the recipe.

Since my last post was about the closing of The Cook’s Library, a bookstore specializing in cookbooks, I thought it would be a good idea to write about them. I have added a list to the blog of my cookbook collection. Not that I am a collector by any means. The books I own I have picked up along the way for various reasons; I knew the author personally, the book intrigued me for some reason, or the author was a person of some stature in the food world.

People have mistakenly referred to me as a ‘chef’. A title I have never used nor would. Calling myself a chef would denigrate those chefs I have known. I am a home cook now, and I once was a ‘professional cook’. I cooked on restaurant kitchen lines as: head line cook at my first restaurant job in Santa Rosa, California, breakfast cook in a San Francisco cafe, and for a short-lived time on the line of Jeremiah Tower’s Santa Fe Bar & Grill in Berkeley, California. But none of those experiences ever came close to those of the men and women I have known who really were chefs, who toiled away from early morning to late night six sometimes seven days a week.

The reason I mention this is that I still use cookbooks. Even though I’ve had training, and have worked in restaurant kitchens. Not every time I cook but often. Sometimes just for inspiration, other times I follow the recipe to a ‘T’. ‘Mastering The Art’ is now well-worn, stained. My favorite pastry crust is out of the vegetarian cookbook ‘Laurel’s Kitchen.’ Whole wheat and amazing. I use Judy Rodger’s, and Jeremiah Tower’s books often. I make a tarte a l’oignon recipe out of a French cookbook I brought back from France: ‘Gastronmie Alsacienne.’

And yet there are holes in my collection. I still don’t have any books by Marcella Hazan. I have long wanted ‘The Classic Italian Cookbook’ and I fear it may be out print. I also don’t have any Richard Olney. Every cook’s library should have ‘Simple French Food’ at the very least. I’d like more Elizabeth David; need at least one James Beard. I have Diana Kennedy’s ‘The Art of Mexican Cooking’ but still need a few Paula Wolferts – the doyenne of Mediterranean cooking. Every cook should also have ‘The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook’ for both the historical aspect, and for the sheer folly of the writing and recipes; as well as for an infamous recipe on page 259 for ‘Haschich Fudge’ more commonly known as marijuana brownies.

Finally, my very first exposure to food writing was that of M.F.K. Fisher. Titles like “The Art of Eating,’ ‘How To Cook A Wolf,’ ‘Serve It Forth,’ and “The Gastronomical Me’ opened my eyes to the art of living as well as inspired a passion in me for the way that food is gathered, prepared and eaten; the dining experience as social effect. She captures the essence of what it means to be human in her writing.

In looking back over this entry I realize that my cookbooks and influences are probably a bit passé now. The people I write about here are from the early part of the food revolution in this country. But they are important forebears. Maybe I’m just a bit old-fashioned. There are now hundreds of new, young, brilliant chefs, amazing new restaurants, cookbooks and Food Network TV shows. The food revolution has grown up. Guess I need to play catch up. I will endeavor to try.

Watch for my next blog: a recipe for Quiche Lorraine adapted from ‘Mastering The Art of French Cooking,’ and ‘Laurel’s Kitchen.’

Bon appétit.

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  1. I'm not sure that those classic cookbooks can ever be out of style. Oh, they might not be *hip* or *fashionable*, but those trends come and go and the classics remain. I do love Marcella Hazan's books. She can be so delightfully dogmatic.

  2. I agree, Giff. Exactly the reason my cookbook shelves tend to have more classics than the 'hip' and 'fashionable.'

  3. I love to read classic cookbooks and learn techniques! I have some very old ones like The Virginia Housewife :)

  4. Charles, you really do embrace all of the ideals I hold true in the kitchen. I have an entire bookshelf full of cookbooks, and the three I go to time and time again are "The Joy of Cooking" and volumes 1 & 2 of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." They are consistent and will never go out of style - ever.

    That is, unless food goes out of style. Fat chance.

  5. Thanks Phil! Nice to know someone else who uses those 'classic' books -- they really are rock solid when it comes to cooking, recipes, eating.